A growing body of research suggests that one of the most pernicious effects of high adult-incarceration rates can be seen in the struggles of children, who often lose a crucial source of motivation and support with their parents behind bars, The Nation reports. Until recently, there has been little hard data showing the effects of incarceration on children. Some states allow the children of prisoners with sentences of a certain length to be adopted, thus severing ties with parents who use drugs or are involved in other criminal or gray-market activities. The theory is that children are likely better off without their crime-prone parents. That theory has been largely disproved by new data that allows researchers to examine the well-being of children before and after a parent's incarceration.
A very small subset of children—those with abusive parents—were found to be more likely to thrive academically and socially if their parents are incarcerated. Most children declined markedly. “Even for kids at high risk of problems, parental incarceration makes a bad situation worse,” concluded Christopher Wildeman and Sara Wakefield in their recently published book, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality. Wildeman and Wakefield found that children with incarcerated fathers were three times more likely than peers from similar backgrounds to become homeless. They also suffered significantly higher rates of behavioral and mental-health problems, most notably aggression. Kristin Turney, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, reached similar conclusions in a report published this past September. Turney found that children with incarcerated parents were three times more likely to suffer from depression or behavioral problems than the average American child, and twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities and anxiety.